When Afrina heard in February that the dating app Sugarbook was to be banned by Malaysian authorities, she curled up in a ball and cried.
The 20-year-old journalism student had been seeing her sugar daddy Amir for nine months. A “happily married” father of five, he had signed up as a premium subscriber on the platform and had conversations with around 20 potential sugar babies. He’d decided on Afrina. She was his type, he said: a college student in her early 20s who made him laugh. They met for the first time in a Hilton hotel suite last May. She was so nervous, she couldn’t help giggling as he laid out what he was looking for in a partner.
“For me, it was strictly sex,” Amir told Rest of World. “I’m very upfront with the ladies about it, and, to be honest, I think most prefer the arrangement to be purely physical.”
Both Afrina and Amir asked for their names to be changed to protect their privacy.
Amir had conditions. He wanted sex, once or more per week, and complete discretion. Afrina had to keep her hair long and her fingernails unpainted. She wasn’t to drink alcohol, smoke, or get a boyfriend. In return, she’d get a monthly allowance of around $1,000 (4,000 ringgit). She could stay in his apartment and occasionally drive his car. There were other gifts — including clothes, books, a laptop, and a phone. As she talked to Rest of World, a huge bunch of flowers arrived. Her parents used to cover her expenses, but now she sends a little money home. She tells them it’s from a part-time job. What Amir gives her lets her save, pay rent on her own apartment, and, once in a while, splash out on designer brands.
But it isn’t just about the money for Afrina. She described him as attractive and kind. He insists she gets good grades at college, and rewards her with more gifts. The nature of their relationship is foggy. “He makes me happy when we’re together; he’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said. Does she love him? “I don’t know. How can I tell?”
Sugarbook was founded by the Malaysian entrepreneur Darren Chan in 2017. Billed as a “unique place online for experiencing the sugar life,” it links young people interested in becoming sugar babies with older, well-off sugar daddies (and, to a lesser extent, sugar mommies). Sugar daddies can subscribe for a monthly fee, browse through profiles, and send direct messages to people they’re interested in. From its inception, the company was accused of selling sex, and of offending the sensibilities of a periodically conservative and moralistic Muslim country.
It all fell apart in just four days in February. With great fanfare, the company published data showing that there were more than 200,000 sugar babies on the service, many of them students like Afrina. Shortly afterward, a post appeared on gadget side TechNave, which used Sugarbook data to rank Malaysian universities by the number of sugar babies among their students. It caused an uproar. Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur — which topped the ranking — condemned the platform for its attempts “to encourage youth to partake in immorality, normalize the notion and disregard the mental health impact this causes.” Within days, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, the national telecoms regulator, had blocked access to the app. Chan was arrested and charged “with the intention to cause public fear.” Sugarbook confirmed to Rest of World that the site “was and is currently banned in Malaysia,” and that the case against Chan is ongoing.
Afrina was devastated. “I was so scared that the police would release my account details and people would know,” she said. “I was terrified that the police would catch me.”
The platform’s sudden downfall after four years speaks to tensions that bubble beneath the surface of modern Malaysia. The country’s identity is split between growing liberalism among many Malaysians and an increasingly performative conservatism among a powerful Muslim elite. That has often led to reactionary approaches that purport to defend public morality, but which rarely lead to any deeper examination of social problems.
“People cared that there was an uproar [over Sugarbook]; they didn’t care because it was wrong,” said children’s rights activist Hartini Zainudin. “We address morality in this punitive and reactionary way because we really don’t want to know what’s going on. If we tried to get to the root cause, we’d have to address taboos, social inequalities, and religious shortcomings.”
Sugar dating platforms have been controversial wherever they have sprung up around the world. In 2017, the sugar dating site RichMeetBeautiful ran a poster campaign in Paris, leading the mayor’s office to call for the platform to be banned. It was eventually prevented from advertising in France and Belgium.
But in Malaysia, this moral outrage carried extra weight. Malaysia’s population is two-thirds Malay Muslim. The country has parallel legal systems for Muslims and non-Muslims, and the country’s politics have almost always been majoritarian, as politicians try to win over the Malay population by offering them privileged status. This included a sweeping policy known as “bumiputera,” under which Malays and indigenous peoples were given privileges, from cheaper mortgages to greater access to stocks and shares. Perceived attempts to unwind those privileges, or to undermine the Islamic identity of the state, have been met with protests, and leaders have increasingly kowtowed to conservatives in order to try to win or maintain power.
This has led to politicized moral crusades. In the two years leading up to September 2020, the telecoms regulator blocked 2,921 sites that it said contained pornographic content. Films, from innocuous homegrown action-comedy movie Banglasia to Hollywood hit Hustlers, have been banned.
“The government in Malaysia has always been looking to keep a close tab on what’s what in terms of how people are using the internet and social apps within their personal life,” said Numan Afifi, a high-profile advocate for LGBTQI rights in the country. LGBTQI books and websites have often fallen foul of these moral crusades — homosexuality is still illegal in Malaysia — and many sites offering news or resources for the community can only be accessed using virtual private networks.
Critics say the knee-jerk banning of anything that could offend morals is symptomatic of a chronic unwillingness to upset the equilibrium of the Islamic elite or to dig down further and expose moral, religious, or cultural shortcomings within Malaysian society.
As the veteran Malaysian journalist and columnist R. Nadeswaran wrote in a piece for independent news site Malaysiakini, there was a good deal of hypocrisy in the ban on Sugarbook, as the power dynamic it embodies — wealthy or influential men in unequal relationships with young women — is ever present in Malaysia.
“Why hasn’t there been such furor when politicians capture trophy wives; VVIPs walk with nubile young women with arms entwined; when some old men marry child brides; and when adults enter into incestuous relationships?” he wrote, pointing to a reported 543 applications for underage marriages between Muslim couples in the first nine months of 2020. “Where did all the do-gooders go when marriages were solemnized between grandfathers and girls who had just attained puberty?”
In April, Sugarbook’s founder, Chan, hinted at a greater hypocrisy, when he claimed that “extremely influential people in power” were users of the platform. The company has refused to publish further details.
Chan has tried to portray the company as empowering for its female users, saying in interviews that many of them are “struggling single mothers, housewives, widows, and divorcees.” It’s a line that stands at odds with earlier comments he’s made. In February 2019, he told the Daily Mail Australia the qualities that sugar daddies were looking for — “smart ass,” no; “tiger in bed,” yes.
Sugarbook is, inevitably, a problematic platform with real potential for harm. Shan, a counselor at a college in Petaling, who asked to be identified by only his first name, says he saw firsthand the emotional damage done to some young women using the app, many of whom came to him struggling with shame and self-loathing. “I do support the ban because they tried to sell a lie about what young people can get from this sort of relationship,” he says. “In reality, it’s not like that at all, and I’ve seen how damaging it is to a person’s well-being. For those who came to me for help, the risks and negative consequences were clear.”
Zainudin, the activist, said that she was “horrified” when the app was explained to her by some young women she was working with. “These girls were playing out fantasies and at the mercy of men,” she said, adding that she was alarmed by the inevitable power imbalance of a financial exchange, particularly as regards students struggling to get by during a pandemic.
But she is also uncomfortable with the government’s reactionary approach, which has prevented a wider discussion about morality, values, and the economic imperatives that drive young women onto platforms like Sugarbook. “Is it companionship? Is it consenting adults? Or is it prostitution?” she said. “We don’t take the time to ask. We just shut it down.”
If the intention in banning Sugarbook was to prevent the practice of “sugaring,” that is also likely to fail. The app is still accessible on the Google Play store in Malaysia and online with a VPN.
Amir, Afrina’s sugar daddy, said he’ll now head to Instagram instead, scroll through accounts (“a dead giveaway is if she has travel pictures alone”), and flag those he likes to an “agent” who’ll get in touch on his behalf. “You’d be surprised how many will seriously consider the offer,” he said.
He doesn’t believe that banning Sugarbook will make a dent in how much sugar dating goes on in the country — if anything, the ban has given the app more exposure. “It’s now much easier to approach these girls and offer them the arrangement, because they’re much more aware of it,” he said. “The controversy actually helped make the whole scene more mainstream.”